Genres and Geographies:
Cultural Decolonization in Mike Newell's Into the West
California Baptist University
Copyright © 1999 by Stanley Orr, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
If there is anything that radically distinguishes the imagination of anti-imperialism, it is the geographical element. Imperialism after all is an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control. For the native, the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by the loss of locality to the outsider; its geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored. Because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, the land is recoverable at first only through imagination.
-- Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)
- The foregoing is drawn from Said's consideration of 20th-century Irish literature, particularly the poetry of W.B. Yeats, as exemplary of global postcolonial resistance culture. Though most often subsumed into a "de-politicized" modernist canon, Yeats emerges for Said a study in the conflicting tensions which characterize the struggle for decolonization. Yeats recognizes British imperial domination of Ireland and seeks to counter assimilation by exploring and reifying an indigenous Irish cultural heritage. But at the same time, Yeats suffered an "anxiety of influence" common to the colonized. Troubled, for example, by working in the English, Yeats, like his own "Irish Airman," often escapes the political complications of his moment by "elevating the tension to an extra-worldly level, as if Ireland were best taken over, so to speak, at a level above that of the ground" (Said 227). Though he "gave us a major international achievement in cultural decolonization," Yeats "stopped short of imagining full political liberation" (238).
- Successive Irish artists are indebted to Yeats as they inventively subvert imperialism and reclaim the geographical, political, and imaginative regions held by the colonizer. In his poem "Digging," for example, contemporary poet Seamus Heaney captures the commitment to cultural decolonization as he imagines his writing variously as a form of resistance and as means of historical "excavation" and reclamation: "Between my finger and thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. . . . I'll dig with it" (Heaney 2422). Whether in terms of a "Celtic revival" inspired by figures like John M. Synge, the postmodernist parodies of Enlightenment imperialism undertaken by Samuel Beckett, or the chronicling of personal rebellion by Brendan Behan, Irish artists have embraced the spirit of resistance conferred by figures such as Yeats and James Joyce.
- As Martin McLoone explains, the struggle against cultural imperialism persists into the Irish film community. McLoone reviews the obstacles to emergent Irish film-makers and offers an analysis of the indigenous cinema which has begun to appear since the mid-1970s: "By the early 1930s, because there were no indigenous Irish films to compete, Ireland's screens were dominated by mainly American films and to a greater extent those of most other countries in Europe" (McLoone 150). Like their literary counterparts, Irish cineastes have had to find strategies for the exposure, subversion, and displacement of aggressive "foreign imports" which would eradicate indigenous cultural forms.
- Though largely overlooked, Mike Newell's recent film Into the West (1992) reads as a powerful commentary upon Irish national culture, literary and cinematic, and upon the ongoing struggle for cultural decolonization in general. Written by Michael Pearce and Jim Sheridan (who wrote and directed My Left Foot , In the Name of the Father , and The Boxer ), this film effectively exposes the mechanics of cultural imperialism and reasserts the possibility of an indigenous Irish voice. The subversive power of Into the West occurs on a number of levels. We are first and foremost acquainted with a narrative which pits a marginalized and disempowered group of Irish "Travellers" against corrupt authorities who serve the interests of an economic ruling class. But Newell elaborates this melodramatic struggle by carefully juxtaposing cinematic styles and genres. On one level, Newell incorporates a grittily Realistic presentation of Dublin's poor with a highly Formalistic treatment of Irish myth and legend. At the same time, he also synthesizes the generic conventions of fantasy with those of the American Western, ultimately reclaiming a genre traditionally complicit with imperialist expansion. The result of these artistic recombinations is a film which undermines historical and latter-day imperialism and one which reaffirms a textual, cultural space for the postcolonial imagination.
- Into the West treats the community of dispossessed Irish migrants --"the Travellers"; known for their horsemanship and their metalwork (they are often derisively labelled "Tinkers"), the Travellers in fact suffer the fate of a permanent underclass in Ireland. Though literally clothed in signifiers of the American West, the Travellers function in the film as custodians of an indigenous Irish culture threatened historically by British imperialism and, more contemporarily, by global capitalism (Said 265). The narrative finds two young brothers within this community: Tito (Rúaidhrí Conroy) and Ossie (Ciarán Fitzgerald) are virtual orphans, all but abandoned by their widowed, grief-stricken, and alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne). The boys' grandfather, himself a Traveller and a storyteller, befriends and introduces to the boys a beautiful white stallion, which we see galloping on a moonlit beach in the films first sequence. The horse is recollective of a legendary Irish animal given the hero Oisín by Naimh, the princess of Tír na nÓg (literally "Land of Eternal Youth"), the mythical land beneath the sea west of Ireland. The boys' grandfather tells them that Oisín suffered the ravages of age only when he fell from his mount. Named Tír na nÓg in the film, the horse is coveted by a wealthy entrepreneur Hartnett (John Cavanaugh) who obtains the horse, with the aid of local police. In a daring and implausible caper, Tito and Ossie make off with Tír na nÓg. Enamored of American western films, they adventure with the horse "into the west" of Ireland, and truly assume the role of outlaws on the run.
- Even as Tito and Ossie imagine themselves adventuring "into the [American] west," they also enter a territory understood in Ireland as a realm of cultural solidarity and fantastic potential. By the conclusion of the film, living Irish myth has succeeded the icons of the American Western. As its title implies, Into the West is a film about geographies physical, cultural, and imaginative. We will therefore be assisted in our reading of the film by some exploration of the tropes of mapping and surveillance embedded within the "text-ure" of empire. Imperial cartography has been amply documented as more than a passive geographic record. As Simon Ryan puts it,
The process of colonial inscription begins even before the arrival of the explorers who prepare maps of the country for subsequent settlement. For their practices, their ways of seeing -- and hence selecting -- detail to be recorded, are predefined not just by centuries-old traditions of European map-making but also by the ideology of expansionist colonialism which they serve. (115)
For Ryan, the map at once "posit[s] the land as a text to claim its readability, and thence to arrogate power over it," and "reifies space as a blank text, ready to be inscribed by the impending colonial process" (Ryan 126). In this sense, cartography also participates in the larger discourses of surveillance; the map allows the imperial subject to "look down" upon and thereby assert control of the territories and peoples in question. Said reminds us that Ireland has been historically visited with just such a multivalent campaign of colonization. Explicitly political gestures such as the 1801 Act of Union, which virtually incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom, concur with the 1824 Ordnance Survey "whose goal was to anglicize the names, redraw the land boundaries to permit valuation of the property (and further expropriation of land in favor of English and "seignorial" families), and permanently subjugate the population"(Said 226).
- Anglo-Irish history thus exemplifies imperialism as an act of "geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control." But notions about geography likewise become a potential "site" of resistance, as the insurgent artist seeks to negotiate colonized topographies, physical and imaginative. As Said suggests,
To achieve recognition is to rechart and then occupy the place in imperial cultural forms reserved for subordination, to occupy it self-consciously, fighting for it on the very same territory once ruled by a consciousness that assumed the subordination of a designated inferior Other.(210)
Said gives a geographical gloss to a concept often treated in postcolonial studies. Whether described as "autoethnography" (Mary Louise Pratt), "signifyin(g)" (Henry Louis Gates), or even "postmodernist parody" (Linda Hutcheon), the notion of subversive appropriation and revision is certainly integral to the phenomenon of resistance culture. In terms strikingly appropriate to Into the West, Michel de Certeau argues for reading itself as a surreptitious act of transgression: ". . . readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads pouching their way across fields they did not write . . ." (Certeau 174). As Tito and Ossie strike "into the west," they become Travellers who not only trespass upon private property and steal physical provisions, but freely "poach" textual game from the vast reserve of the American western.
- On the most obvious level, Into the West treats a set of melodramatically polarized actants who broadly suggest the terms of postcolonial Ireland. The dispossessed Travellers metonymically represent a historically threatened indigenous Irish culture.
In the film, Travellers must choose between assimilation, urban poverty, and nomadic wandering throughout the Irish countryside, where they are continually harassed. Newell's treatment of the Travellers might recall Joe Comerford's 1982 film Traveller, which portrays the group as "both the forgotten victims of progress" and as "a metaphor for the dispossessed nationalist people of the North" (McLoone 162). In the same spirit, Newell clearly upholds these Travellers as guardians of the beleaguered Celtic tradition. Though conspicuously American in his leather jacket and cowboy-boots, Papa Reilly also wears a Celtic-pattern tattoo on the back of his hand (an illuminated "M" in memory of his departed wife Mary). The Travellers' resistance to colonization is very much apparent in the sequence in which Papa celebrates his reunion with the Travellers by participating in a traditional dance. A medium-shot tableau of the dance juxtaposes the dancers against a small television screen in the lower right corner of the frame. As I suggest below, the TV screen, along with the cinematic, operates in the film as the tool of cultural imperialism. In this shot, however, only a few of the Travellers watch TV; the majority turn to indigenous popular culture: broadcasts from metropolitan centers are present, but comprise only a small part of Irish Traveller life. A more obvious intrusion occurs as Inspector Bolger (Brendan Gleeson) pursues his "investigation" into the Traveller camp. Bolger castigates Reilly for "dancing like an animal" -- he has clearly subscribed to Anglo-imperial notions of Irish identity as inferior and "sub-human." But the Travellers here tellingly face him down to resume their dance, and, in a larger sense, their defiant lifestyle.
- Grandfather Reilly is perhaps most suggestive of all as he recounts Irish legends and introduces Tír na nÓg into the community. As suggested above, this storyteller weaves the horse into Irish myths about the hero Oisín; it is this location of Tír na nÓg which will persist to counter Tito and Ossie's absorption into imported narratives about the American west. The grandfather also functions as a kind of externalization of Papa Reilly's conscience. Although Reilly is the hereditary "king" of the Travellers, he has, in his grief, forsaken his responsibility to the Traveller community and to himself. Amidst odd-jobs and bouts of drunkenness, and half-hearted attempts to send Tito and Ossie to assimilative schools, Reilly initially represents the successful attempts of capitalism and imperialism to subjugate the historically colonized Irish. But Grandfather Reilly continually reminds Papa of his heritage and his responsibilities.
- The Travellers are oppressed by a complex of forces constitutive of latter-day imperialism. The poverty experienced by the Reillys is the result of the international capitalism which succeeded nationalistic empire. Such economic imperialism is distilled in the film into the entrepreneur Hartnett, who, with the cooperation of the corrupt police authorities, seeks to wrest Tír na nÓg from the Travellers and exploit the animal for profit. Of central importance is a spurious deed which will give Hartnett title to the horse: "Has the Traveller signed over the horse yet? 'Cause it's got to be official." Purporting Tír na nÓg a horse which he has bred for Steeplechase competition in his stables, Hartnett reenacts the colonizer's impulse to normalize appropriations through documentation. Papa Reilly is beaten and coerced by the police into signing the deed; the fugitive boys thus become outlaws. In this sense, Into the West evokes the attempts of British colonizers, of imperialist culture in general, to legitimize domination of Ireland, to write "diffusionist accounts" (Pratt 5) which render imperial conquest natural and inevitable.
- Newell infuses this politically-charged melodrama with a subtle interplay between cinematic styles and genres. Into the West in some ways reminds one of Jean Cocteau's celebrated La Belle et La Bête (1946), a film which, given its proximity to the devastations of France during WWII, ironically posits the power of child-like wonder and imagination against the drab certainties of everyday life. One of the many interesting consequences of the film is that the daring formalistic sequences, with their innovative special effects, appear more "real" than the stretches involving Belle's home, which are not only dreary but almost nakedly unconvincing: the interiors look like a movie set. Here Cocteau asserts the power of art and imagination against a grim reality in which siblings will betray each other and in which handsome suitors forsake love for material gain.
- Newell might remember Cocteau as he allows the most formalistic of treatments to collide with cinematic Naturalism: oppressive realities treated in a suitably semi-documentary style. In the first sequence of the film, we see Tír na nÓg virtually emerge from the moonlit ocean and gallop, in lyrical slow motion, down the beach. A traditional Celtic score accompanies the horse as it joins Grandpa Reilly's trek towards Dublin. But this Romantic opening sequence is interrupted as Grandpa Reilly, entering Dublin, is startled by a jet-liner on take-off. Lyrical formalism gives way to semi-documentary presentations of poverty, overcrowded tenements, and abandoned children. It is in this setting that we are introduced to Papa Reilly, the grieving alcoholic who recruits his boys for welfare fraud. In his grief, Reilly, "a fallen man, "has forsaken at once his children, the Traveller life-style, and implied psychological and spiritual redemption. Both in terms of subject-matter and formal technique, Newell evokes the dissonant voice of Naturalism, which denies the possibility that the protagonists will be able to resist or transcend their oppressive environment. Jim Sheridan's treatment of urban Ireland in My Left Foot comes to mind here. But as they consider the deleterious effects of Dublin slums on children, Newell and Sheridan might even be thinking of another Joe Comerford film -- Down the Corner (1978), which was one of the first films to frankly treat the oppressive conditions of the Irish city: "Through a series of vignettes, the film establishes the effect of urban poverty on a group of young boys: the lack of opportunity, unemployment, irrelevant schooling and the kind of cheek-by-jowl living conditions which lead to family bickering" (McLoone 160). Such attention to the fate of urban children is a recurrent theme in postcolonial film. In Hector Babencos Pixote (Brazil, 1981), the titular protagonist (Fernando Ramos Da Silva), an orphan on the streets of Sao Paolo, becomes tragically involved n a series of crimes ranging from prostitution to murder.
- By introducing the possibility of a similar fate for the desperate Tito and Ossie, who resort to begging in the streets, Newell initiates a complex narrative strategy: he both engages in an unflinching critique of colonial aftermath in Ireland, and generates a foil against which the lyrical formalism of the film will contend. With his advent, Tír na nÓg exerts a supernatural effect. The harsh Naturalism of the Dublin sequences is interrupted by the horses impossible feats (photographed in slow-motion, Tír na nÓg jumps a large fire; begins to demolish the Reillys dreary tenement; comically kicks holes in the walls of the deteriorated public housing project). Indeed, as Grandpa Reilly weaves the horse into legends about Travellers and the legendary hero Oisín, Newell allies the film's fantastic formalism to the struggle for Irish national culture.
- Generic tensions accompany the film's interplay of style. The narrative of Into the West, with its melodramatic polarization of protagonists and antagonists, certainly recalls the basic terms of the American western, which often treats the struggle of dispossessed settlers -- "sodbusters" and sheepmen -- against the impersonal forces of the ranchers and/or the railroad. Newell explicitly invokes this looming pretext: the Travellers are an equine people, frankly clothed in the signifiers of the American cowboy (boots, hats, and so on). Tito and Ossie wholeheartedly assume the narrative of the American western as they flee Hartnett, the police, and even a "posse" of fox hunters. The boys have imbibed this narrative from films such as Shane and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which they see on TV and rent in video-stores. Tito and Ossie therefore see themselves as "cowboys" adventuring in "the wild west," and see Irish mountains as "the Rockies."
- This identification subtly introduces another ideological tension into the film. Continually drawn to screen images of American culture, Tito and Ossie may well seem victims of a cultural imperialism -- self and world have become wholly configured by these powerful American imports. It is as if the reality of the American western has itself colonized the Irish imaginative and cultural landscape. Into the West therefore recognizes a central problem in Irish cinema. As Martin McLoone points out:
In a situation where Hollywood cinema has dominated the screens of Ireland unchallenged by indigenous filmmaking, the only cinematic images of Ireland with which the Irish were familiar were the representations that flowed out of the Hollywood industry (and at crucial points when it was productive, the British industry as well). In other words, "cinematic Ireland" was entirely a foreign construction. . . . This is the problem of cultural imperialism, the colonisation of the unconscious, in which, to adapt Albert Memmi's formulation, the colonised cultural can finally only recognise itself in the image promoted in the first instance by the colonising culture itself. (McLoone 150-152)
Into the West does not explicitly encounter cinematic images of Ireland; but the conflict between foreign and indigenous representations of Ireland certainly lurks behind Tito and Ossie's propensity to see their native landscape through the filter of the American western.
- Such developments seem even more problematic when we realize the cultural work performed by the western: like Hartnett's bogus genealogies and titles, the American western consistently reads as an imperialist "diffusionist account" -- a pervasive textual complex which naturalizes and celebrates American Manifest Destiny. Indeed, for all its overt anti-establishment tendencies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may be quite readily interpreted as a tale of imperialist adventure in which the heroic protagonists enjoy escapades throughout the colonized territories of the Americas. Richard Slotkin argues that the Cassidy and Sundance of 1969 represent an admittedly diluted treatment of the "counter-insurgency" formula which pervaded the Western during America's loss of control in Vietnam: "They are professional robbers, in the game for fun and profit. But their success as despoilers of the natives isolates them among a frightened but hostile population" (Slotkin 592). In this sense, Into the West treats one form of imperialist domination only by falling into another.
- The film avoids this ideological pitfall by recognizing and reinterpreting the American western. Tito and Ossie variously identify themselves within two distinct Western narrative formulae: they either become "cowboys" against "Indian" others or errant "outlaws" against some institutional adversary (as in Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage , and Jack Schaefer's Shane ). But even as Tito and Ossie cast themselves as outlaws, "Indian" signifiers persist throughout the film. When the boys learn of the the substantial reward posted for their capture, they celebrate their outlaw status with an "Indian war-dance." In a fascinating and suggestive sequence, Tito and Ossie seek refuge from weather and pursuer alike by spending the night, with Tír na nÓg, in a village movie-theater. Here they eat their fill of popcorn and screen another "western," Back to the Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990): we see them rapt before a sequence of Indians chasing the time-travellers across the Monument Valley desertscape. This moment recalls the earlier instance of spectation, in which the boys had attempted to watch a televised version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (through a "hole in the wall"), and thereafter imagine themselves as outlaws. It is clear that the impressionable pair identify with their screen idols. But something different occurs with the Savoy Theater sequence; Tito and Ossie literally infiltrate the movie-house and enlist the cinema to their cause. Discovered in the morning, the brothers, like their cowboy heroes, jump from the balcony onto Tír na nÓg's back and burst from the theater doors. As the white horse rears, Tito shouts, "Hi ho, Silver, away!" Moments later Tito and Ossie ride at full gallop towards the camera, a shot recollective of the charging Indian cavalcade quoted in the Savoy sequence. And, in an adjacent sequence, we see that Tír na nÓg and the boys seem to have appropriated an evasion tactic (hiding in a cave) from Back to the Future Part III. I believe that these formulaic oscillations 1) frankly acknowledge the American western as an imaginative space; 2) destabilize the terms of the subsumptive western genre; and 3) recruit the unanchored narrative to the immediate cause of Tito and Ossie's journey and to the narrative of Into the West, as a whole. Ultimately, Tito and Ossie do not read as passive consumers of culture-industry fodder, but rather as active textual "poachers" who con-script the Western genre.
- Tito later asks Papa whether Travellers are cowboys or Indians. As Reilly replies, "There's a bit of a Traveller in everybody," he at once refutes the limited binary thinking available under the American Western, under western imperialism in general, and ratifies the return of narrative control to the indigenous Irish voice. A central movement of Into the West, then, is concerned to evoke, undermine, and conscript the American Western, as well as the larger generic category of the imperialist adventure story. This movement gives way, however, to a more assertive strategy. Even as the boys ride into the landscape of the American western, Tír na nÓg takes them deep into a region understood in Irish culture as a realm of magical possibility. The titular double entendre may in fact be read as the first of two prominent quotations of the Irish dramatist John M. Synge. Perhaps more than any other writer, Synge evokes the west of Ireland -- the County Mayo and especially the remote Aran Islands -- as a "stronghold" of indigenous Celtic identity and resistance:
Here nature and history conspired to form "a half-savage temperament" of traditional rebellion -- a temperament made melancholy by the dank weather and desolate isolation, brutalized by the evictions and the Land Wars (1879-1882), restrained at times by faith, anaesthetized by poteen, and roused by any stranger with a wild song or story.(Hart xii)
As William Hart's Romantic account suggests, savagery is, in the idiom of western imperialism, a short-hand for non-compliance. Synge would celebrate the "rebellious" Irish west in plays such as Playboy of the Western World (1907), in which a young prodigal assumes mythic, heroic proportions as he arrives in the coast of Mayo amidst stories that he has killed his father. The drama was certainly inspired by Synge's experiences in the west. Throughout The Aran Islands (1907), Synge captures the Irish perception of its western region as "the last Fortress of the Celt" (Hart 79), as a metonymic symbol of a people and a culture intact after successive waves of Roman, Christian, and English colonization.
- Synge's titular "Western World" carries an ironic dual meaning, suggesting both an imperialistic European tradition and the unassimilated Ireland. Newell similarly allows the "west" of the American frontier to be displaced by its Irish counterpart. Tito and Ossie eventually reach a "point of no return"; Tír na nÓg refuses to take them back to the poverty and oppression of Dublin, but carries them towards freedom and reunion with the Traveller community. Their journey becomes a pilgrimage, marked by stops at "stations": their mother's grave and a statue of the Virgin bearing a sign, "God Bless the Travellers." As in Seamus Heaney's poem, "Station Island" (1984), the journey fuses religious pilgrimage, personal memory, and cultural re-discovery. What we witness, then, in Into the West, is an exploitation of the American western, and, indeed, a coopting of the imperialist quest or adventure trope in general. Elleke Boehmer identifies this particular form of revision as an important dimension of postcolonial literatures:
In their myriad narratives of journeying we see how postcolonial writers have managed, through a process of mass imaginative appropriation, to hijack one of the defining stories of imperial expansion: the traveller's tale, the voyage into mystery, to the heart of darkness. Tales of occupation and settlement plotted from the colonial centre to the colonies have been supplanted by journeys from the hinterland to the city-- with the final moment of homecoming and return. Another reverse narrative in the same genre is the pilgrimage into a spiritual reality obscure to Europe. Incorporating indigenous cultural material, defiant of western authority, the postcolonial quest seeks mastery not in the first instance over land or other peoples, but of history and self. (Boehmer 201-2)
Tito and Ossie fully enact the reverse journey common to postcolonial narratives: they have "hijacked" the outward-bound narrative of the American Western only to accomplish a homecoming, a voyage into the "spiritual reality" of the Irish west. By the conclusion of the film, Tito and Ossie surpass "terrain" altogether; Ossie rides his horse into the western ocean, into the legendary "Tír na nÓg" itself.
- The rather bizarre image of Ossie riding a horse into the ocean constitutes another allusion to Synge; here to the dramatist's 1904 play Riders to the Sea, which concerns Aran Islanders killed during the dangerous task of transporting livestock to coastal freighters. While in the Aran Islands, Synge witnessed men riding horses into the turbulent sea, where the animals would ultimately be hoisted onto waiting ships (the hazardous enterprise would later be treated in Robert Flaherty's landmark documentary Man of Aran ). Riders to the Sea celebrates not only the courage of the Aran horsemen, but the resilience of the bereaved survivors. Certainly alluding to Synge and the Aran Islanders, Newell posits a more optimistic fate for his own "riders to the sea," one which returns us to the tension between Naturalism and Fantasy, Realism and Formalism. Whereas Synge's play is about human resilience in the face of annihilation -- an aged mother mourns her dead sons --, Into the West posits the salvific power of hope and imagination.
In a lyrical sub-marine sequence, and a counterpoint to Riders, Ossie is saved from drowning by Tír na nÓg, who has metamorphosed into the supernatural figure of his departed mother.
- The final sequences of Into the West see a profound sense of closure on a number of levels: narrative, generic, stylistic, and political. When Papa retrieves the spent Ossie from the breakers, the kindlier Superintendent O'Mara (Jim Norton) commands his men to "leave these people in peace." Hostile forces withdrawn, the melodramatic plot is appropriately concluded when Papa ritually burns the Traveller wagon, along with a picture of Mary; thereby letting go of the past and his grief. We are left to assume that he will initiate a new relationship with the Traveller woman Kathleen (Ellen Barkin). This level of closure is underscored by the persistence of formalistic fantasy: Naturalistic forces have receded, and Tito and Ossie glimpse in the burning pyre a ghostly image of the horse Tír na nÓg, the symbol at once of their youthful adventure, their mother's love, and, ultimately, cultural and political resilience.
- This return to lyrical formalism reminds us that Into the West ultimately recruits the practices of the celebrated "magical realism" -- that artistic movement most dramatically characterized by the commingling of descriptive reportage with fantastic subject matter. Though most often associated with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Julio Cortazar, postcolonial artists from around the world have deployed magic realist techniques in order to "express their view of a world fissured, distorted, and made incredible by cultural displacement": ". . . they combine the supernatural with local legend and imagery derived from colonialist cultures to represent societies which have been repeatedly unsettled by invasion, occupation, and political corruption"(Boehmer 235). Boehmer here again might be describing Into the West. Newell brings into play the disparate discourses of realism and the fantastic, subordinating the former to a critique of colonial aftermath and asserting the latter as a means of indigenous anti-colonial resistance. This operation is of course mirrored in the film by Newell's handling of the Western genre. Like the broader Realist tradition (to which it, in fact, belongs), the Western functions to normalize the colonizer's perspective. Though initially subsumed by this rapacious imperialist genre, Tito, Ossie, and Tír na nÓg check the advance of the western and embrace rather a pilgrimage "back to the future" of their own culture and identity. By virtue of the careful stylistic, generic, and thematic juxtapositions, Into the West "recharts and re-occupies" previously colonized territories, geographical and cultural.
- We should note, however, that even as Into the West challenges imperialism, the film's critique is itself circumscribed by important limitations. Perhaps most obviously, Into the West accomplishes its subversion of imperialism by conserving the gender politics endemic to the western genre and to western culture as a whole. As many commentators have noted, the American western very generally reifies patriarchy: whether schoolmarms, saloon girls, or homesteading wives, women consistently emerge from westerns as "domestic angels" who subserve the heroic identity of the male protagonist. Such gender assignments, in turn, participate in the patriarchal structures of western imperialist endeavor. We generally might expect postcolonial literatures to depart from patriarchal visions, which seem so obviously complicit with imperialist oppression. But this is of course not the case; Elleke Boehmer points out that, with regard to many examples of postcolonial writing,
. . . it is clear that whereas men are invoked as leaders and citizens of the new nation, women are widely regarded as icons of national values, or idealized custodians of tradition. The kinds of narrative chosen by writers at the time of independence reflected this male-centered vision of national destiny: the quest tale, often autobiographical, featuring an individualist hero who embodies the process of national overcoming; the nostalgic reminiscence in which a mother-figure symbolizes the integrity of the past. (Boehmer 225)
Boehmer's assessment returns us to Into the West, itself a postcolonial text which yet retains the "genderings" endemic to imperial culture. Women are scarce in this "boy's film," and the two notable exceptions to this rule hardly disturb its masculine ethos. Mary Reilly certainly constitutes a central presence throughout the narrative: in the first movements she appears negatively as the domestic center whose disappearance dramatically destabilizes the Reilly household. When she duly "materializes," she appears not as a complex or realistic human figure, but rather as a spiritual other, an "icon of national values," a "custodian of tradition," and a symbol of "the integrity of the past." Mary is implicitly succeeded as Papa's wife by Kathleen, who, though perhaps more "tangible" and assertive than Mary (she refuses to be dismissed as a tracker) , yet occupies a circumscribed domestic role. Into the West is therefore possessed of a phallocentric perspective which ultimately limits its anti-colonial critique. It is as if this film, like so many earlier postcolonial texts, represents that "aggressive masculinity" which appears in the wake of an imperialism bent on maintaining power through the feminization of an entire colonized people (Boehmer 224).
- Into the West therefore offers a less rigorous investigation of postcolonial Ireland than do films such as Kieran Hickey's Exposure (1978) and Pat Murphy's Maeve (1981) and Ann Devlin (1984); films which pay close attention to the role of gender politics in a problematic Irish nationalism (McLoone 163-68). At once impeded and empowered by Hollywood's dominance and by the strictures of nationalism, Irish cineastes have generated a body of consistently and unflinchingly interrogative films. As he surveys the work of Joe Comerford, Kieran Hickey, and Bob Quinn, McLoone arrives at a "coherent set of overlapping themes," the common denominator of which is a suspicion of Irish nationalism: in particular its valorization of rural mythology, religion, and Irish tradition (McLoone 157). New Irish cinema finds itself caught between Hollywood globalization and an equally limited Irish nationalism. How should we locate Into the West within this complex postcolonial situation? Although the film clearly subscribes to a comparatively naive celebration of Irish rural mythology, it also offers an incisive, if ultimately limited, assessment of contemporary Irish cultural politics. Read against McLoone's discussion, Tito and Ossie become almost allegorical representatives of the dangers of postcolonial Ireland: they suffer under the urban blight which Irish nationalism, according to McLoone, has ignored, and face the threat of assimilation into the cultural imperialism of Hollywood. The later stages of the films trajectory, despite nostalgic pastoralism, recognize and counter this bleak assimilative prospect, exploit it as a vehicle, and counter with assertion of an indigenous Irish tradition. Ultimately, Into the West must be valued as much for its indices into contemporary Ireland, and into the dynamics of resistance culture, generally, as for its statement about nationalism.
- Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- Hart, William E. "Introduction." Synge, John Millington. The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1966.
- Heaney, Seamus. "Digging." Norton Anthology of British Literature. Vol 2. Eds. M.H. Abrams et al. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.
- McLoone, Martin. "National Cinema and Cultural Identity: Ireland and Europe." Border Crossing: Film in Ireland, Britain, and Europe. Eds. John Hill, Martin McLoone, and Paul Hainsworth. Institute of Irish Studies; British Film Institute, 1994. 146-73.
- Newell, Mike, dir. Into the West. Perf. Rúaidhrí Conroy, Ciarán Fitzgerald, Gabriel Byrne, Ellen Barkin. Parallel Films, 1992.
- Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Ryan, Simon. "Inscribing the Emptiness: Cartography, exploration and the construction of Australia. " Eds. Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson. De-Scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 115-130.
- Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
- Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
- Synge, John Millington. The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1966.
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